After ten days at sea we arrived at Niue, our lines now secured to a mooring ball anchored firmly in the rocky bottom 80 feet down. There is no protected harbor on this island nation, only an open roadstead with the island between us and the Easterly tradewinds and seas, so Mark rigged our flopper-stopper device (a stainless steel plate with hinged wings) to dampen the rock and roll from the gentle but insistent swell. Land never looked so sweet to us as it did upon our arrival at dawn yesterday morning. And when we finally placed our feet upon the ground (after using a mechanical hoist to lift the dinghy eight feet out of the water and onto a dinghy cart for parallel parking on the wharf), and we let our bodies feel the unmoving earth, we were giddy.
This passage was hard. It was work. It built our skills and deepened our knowledge of our boat and of our tactics. It was also team work that got us here safely with no damage to our boat or bodies. One core member of the team, my father (Peter, aka Papa), sat in front of a computer screen in Monterey, endlessly analyzing the weather systems that made our journey so challenging, and sending us emails with updates that we snagged with our SSB radio.
We’re in a part of Oceania now where the persistent highs and lows spinning off of Australia and New Zealand below us interact with the South Pacific Convergence Zone above us. A high, high pressure system can push the pressure gradients together, causing reinforced Easterly tradewinds. That dynamic brought us the persistent 20 knot winds, becoming 25 knots, that were a daily part of our passage. Strong winds with long fetch built the seas into two to three meter powerful hills which chased us and tossed us about, occasionally combining their force with ours into an adrenaline rush of a surf down a steep face. Unlike our passage from Mexico to the Marquesas, where strong trade winds meant freedom from squalls (the powerful breeze blew off the tops of any localized low pressure cloud formations, and prevented the associated conduction of moisture into tall cumulous clouds which, if formed, unleashed their water weight with a fury), the SPCZ provided plenty of moisture in the air to deliver 30 to 32 knot gusts and rainy downbursts, any time of day, but especially on my watch of 11 p.m. to 3 a.m. So we were constantly on squall watch, reefing and unfurling sails, adjusting the wind pilot, and working hard to keep the boat moving safely forward. No sitting back and soaking up the stars and watching the moon rise; instead we peered into the dark night to judge the shape and texture of clouds, looking for hard lines which spelled strong gusts and a soaking, or breathing easily when we could distinguish a fluffy edge, knowing a sprinkle was coming, but without the fury of the wind.
But the reinforced trade winds were not our real worry, for this time around the high was not so high as to cause a gale of 40 knot winds. It was the lows that plagued us. The first low we weathered kept us in the Leeward Islands, shifting the winds around so that we beat from Raiatea to Bora Bora, rather than enjoying the usual downhill run from island to island. But the wind wasn’t strong yet, and the seas mellow, so Anthea was in her element, designed as she was to race sharply to weather. We reveled as always in her ability to point high without losing ground, often seeming to shimmy upwind rather than slip down from dreaded leeway. It was only when we turned dead into the wind and had to tack against a knot current, that we clawed, rather than flew, up the coast of Bora Bora and through the pass into the protection of the lagoon.
One night at Bora Bora was plenty for us to soak in the beauty of the volcanic peak towering over the lagoon, so we set out for Maupiti, only 30 nautical miles away, where we planned to wait out the quickly approaching trough of low pressure. Once out in the two meter seas, and after re-reading the sailing directions for navigating the long, narrow pass, we realized we could get into the lagoon, but barely. The seas, however, were growing, and we could get trapped inside a small lagoon for a week while waiting for the swell to diminish. So back we turned to the protected anchorage in Bora Bora, retreating inside the pass and treating ourselves to a glorious downwind sail to the southern edge of the navigable areas of the lagoon, before turning north and beating upwind with full sail in 16-18 knots apparent on flat water. We had the soundtrack from Mama Mia blasting out of our waterproof speaker, and I danced at the helm (to the dismay of Anson and Devon), stopping my disco moves as we approached land, so no stranger could witness the mortifying sight. It was a dream sail into a dreamscape of an anchorage behind Bora Bora’s signature tombstone peak. That night and the next we watched the full moon rise over the peak and waited for the low pressure system to pass on by. We hunkered below during the rain and checked to make sure the anchor held as the wind clocked around and re-established its easterly flow. Our anchorage was a bit rocky, but well protected, and our Rocna anchor held us firmly throughout. We left on the back end of the system, happy to launch the next phase in our journey.
The confused seas that made the beginning of the voyage so challenging below (recall Extreme Baking) were the mess left behind from that trough of low pressure. Five days into the journey it became apparent that another trough was coming right for us, with Niue predicted to receive punishing wind and rains. Our weather data accessed via the SSB showed black swatches of extreme rain and predictions of sustained 30 knot winds surrounding our destination; Papa’s resesarch showed more fine grained analysis with predictions of two inches of rain per hour in the worst spots. Evasive action was required. Papa searched for a safe spot for us to wait out the system, and we altered course to head north, tried to slow the boat down so we wouldn’t get there too quickly, but found the motion intolerable. We powered back up and arrived at our safe location, several hundred nautical miles northeast of Niue, well before our planned time. Our task: park the boat for 24 to 48 hours while the trough flowed southeast of Niue. Just lying ahull was one option, but that put us beam to the waves. Yuk! Forereaching under jib alone was also too sloppy. So up went the triple reefed main and out went a scrap of jib, which we promptly backwinded to heave-to. We crept along at 1 to 1.5 knots, heading northwest, and then tacked 18 hours later to stay east of the line of ominous weather.
Below decks the motion was tolerable, but just barely. Now standing watch meant a quick glance around for other boats every fifteen minutes or so. Party time! We broke out the chocolate covered biscottis, set up the movie screen, and watched the last two Harry Potter films with only a break for dinner. Standing watch that night was easy, but staying awake wasn’t since I missed my nap between dinner and 11 p.m. The next morning I awoke late, checked the weather and scoured the GRIB files for any possibility of setting sail. I saw a route that would have us sail only through grey areas (light rain), but this was tricky business and serious weather, so I called my parents for a weather consult. Together we confirmed that the trough moved faster than expected and a window of opportunity presented itself, but bad news also followed: that journey would take us into a dead zone of no wind as a high pressure system filled behind the trough. Yet 24 hours of sailing would put us within motoring range if we were desperate, so we loosed the jib sheet, unfurled the sail and set out across the lumpy seas and still strong wind and headed for Niue.
We were counting down the miles and making good time. The squalls weren’t more breezy, but lightning lit up the sky, with horizontal pulses every few seconds throughout the night. We were blissfully outside the center of the most intense weather cells, but Mark’s early morning watch took us through a three hour long thunderstorm with heavy rain and strong, shifty winds. The lightning was worrisome, but never dangerously close. We dodged the worst of it. Twenty four hours were up and the barometer still read less than 1013 mb– good news as 1015 mb meant no wind. Every hour sailing felt like a gift. Blessed be the weather dieties, for they pushed that high away from our route and gave us a sweet breeze all the way into Niue!
Once safely moored we heard from other cruisers who made different choices. One couple stayed on course to Niue and faced sustained 30 knot winds with gusts to 40 knots and 4 to 5 meter seas. Fortunately, they sustained no damage. Other folks already at Niue braved the moorings in a westerly wind and swell; a dreadful night on the mooring balls led to the loss of one dinghy when the sustained bashing ripped the attachment ring from the hull (serious business as there are no replacement dinghies between here and New Zealand), and a sleepless night as the reef was only seconds away if a mooring broke loose. That led the woman of one couple to spend the night in a hotel rather than stay aboard for a white knuckle night. Smart decision, as anyone who thinks they can save a boat from crashing on a reef with only a few seconds to react is fooling themselves.
Papa’s magic parking spot kept us in conditions that were relatively benign and nothing more than we face when we sail down the California coast. Thank you Papa and Nana for altering your daily plans so that you could be weather router par excellence!
The passage behind us, a treasure trove of adventures awaits. Tonight we go to a presentation on the humpback whales and the ongoing research based in Niue, followed by a preview of a National Geographic special on the island. Sunday we tour Niue by rental car (alas, no public transport here) to visit the numerous limestone caves and caverns, as well as the national forest which sensibly integrates people’s subsistence strategies into the management plan. And then there’s whale watching, snorkeling in crystal clear water, and the joys of cafes and restaurants (including an Indian restaurant run by a Punjabi family with whom we spoke Hindi with only a bit of French creeping in at the edges – our brain seems to have only one track for languages other than English). We’ll also enjoy internet, where we can read your comments that are otherwise not visible to us at sea, post some photos, bandwith permitting, and perhaps, if we are brave enough, read the news of the rest of the world that we’re blissfully oblivious to while at sea. Needless to say, we’re staying as long as the weather allows!